On The Road With RL Reeves Jr: Seeking Joe Tex In The Heart Of Texas

Seeking Joe Tex in the heart of Texas

Don Cornelius turned me into an adolescent Joe Tex fan.

When I was a little kid, Saturday afternoons were devoted to Soul Train, Wide World of Sports and Southeastern Championship Wrestling.

My family’s living room would be filled with kids watching our color TV set, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and hot fudge brownies, all whilst drinking glass tumblers of grape Kool Aid.

Taco-flavored Doritos were sometimes on the menu as well.

If daddy was off work and feeling sporty he’d pour a half gallon of hog lard in a big, cast-iron pan and turn out a couple dozen pieces of crispy fried chicken for our gang.

We did not go hungry.

Joe Tex’s ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More With No Big Fat Woman’ was the soundtrack.

Soul Train is still one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

A few years back, I made friends with a man whose mama used to date Joe Tex in the 60s. She was a barmaid at the legendary Dew Drop Inn here in New Orleans and they fell in lust when Tex performed at the old nightclub.

It’s still a source of pride for her son.

Seeking Joe Tex in the heart of Texas

On a recent visit to Austin I decided it was time to pay homage to Joe Tex by visiting his hometown of Rogers, Texas. It’s only a 90 minute drive and the lion’s share of the journey passes through Williamson County, one of the prettiest parcels of land in the entire state.

I’ve traveled to Taylor in Williamson County dozens of times over the last 30 years to eat barbecue and this trek will be no different. After a half hour in the Econoline I wheel onto the side street next to Davis Grocery, park under a shade tree and make my way inside.

The lady on the block with the butcher knife is methodically working her way through a chunk of black, fatty brisket for a patron who’s staring at her with his tongue lolling out like a Tex Avery cartoon dog.

After a swift, somewhat terse, negotiation period, I retire to a nearby table with a half rack of pork ribs and a fat slab of brisket.

The owner, Reverend James Davis’ life on the smoker has been time well spent. He’s a genuine pit boss.

After a few minutes of feasting, I pack up my leftovers and take the five minute drive into Taylor’s downtown so I can pop in on nonagenarian barbecue man Vencil Mares.

Davis Grocery in Taylor, Texas

Mares has been running Taylor Cafe since 1948 when he opened the restaurant as a young buck just 23 years of age. I always get a fat link of his Bohemian sausage served with a brace of cold pickles, white onions and saltine crackers.

I’m not even hungry but a visit to Central Texas is not complete without checking in on Mr Vencil to pay my respect.

A one hour drive up and across the Blackland Prairies finds me wheeling into dusty downtown Rogers, Texas. Rogers just made the news as the city’s lone law enforcement officer retired and now the rule of law has wafted off on the Texas wind.

Only a thousand or so people call the village home so hopefully the ne’er-do-well will leave well enough alone.

The Joe Tex historical marker is easy to find. It’s right next to the Alvin Ailey marker. I imagine that there will be a Chuck Norris plaque at some point as that would complete the trinity of Rogers’ most famous sons.

Seeking Joe Tex in the heart of Texas

The good-idea-havers long since migrated from Rogers as the markers are in a most peculiar place. They’re perched on a sidewalk-ledge just above some street parking off to the side of the courthouse.

If you were nine feet tall or willing to stand on top of a row of parked automobiles the placement would be fine.

After some deft maneuvering I’m able to get a couple shots of the markers, and soon enough make my way into the City Hall to see about buying some Joe Tex t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers.

Like I said, the good-idea-havers don’t stick around Rogers past the age of 18 and my requests are met with puzzlement.

The ladies behind the counter are bemused and suggest I visit an antique store across the street.

Seeking Joe Tex in the heart of Texas

Drawing on the mental map of Texas I keep in my head at all times, it dawns on me that I’m near Zabcikville (pop. 40) and the legendary Green’s Sausage House.

After a quick walk-through of the antique store (where the kindly lady had at least heard of Joe Tex) I draw a bead on Zabcikville, and 15 minutes later I’m standing in front of a cold case filled with the kind of rural charcuterie that men have lusted over and fought for since saltpetre was first discovered a thousand years ago.

I load up on housemade chorizo, peppered bacon, beef jerky, and prune kolaches before quitting the place.

The Cactus Rose in Taylor has been my favorite bar in all of Texas for the past two decades. I stumbled upon the old beer joint back in the 90s when I was plundering Williamson County’s barbecue joints on my old Kawasaki motorbike.

The Cactus Rose in Williamson County, Texas

A thick haze of Pall Mall smoke greets me as I step inside the battered front door. All the regulars turn to look at the newcomer and quickly raise an arm in greeting. Busch Light tallboys are the standard drinks of the ranchers and roustabouts crowded around the old fieldstone bar.

Pearl snap shirts, Justin boots and Resistol hats are part of the dress code.

Somebody’s playing Don Williams on the jukebox.

It’s beer joint heaven.

For the next hour I sit around jawing with the pensioners and cattlemen. We run down a list of the old barmaids that used to work here and they get me caught up with what the old gals are up to these days.

Williamson County, Texas

The joint is dim, smoky and cold from the high powered AC. Beers are cheap and politics are off the table.

Austin seems a million miles away.

Joe Tex had a wild and wooly music career. He left Rogers when he was just a little kid in the tow of his mama who took the family to Baytown after she divorced Joe’s daddy. While young Joe was matriculating at the G.W Carver school he started working on his song and dance routines to better exploit his shoe shine customers.

Joe Tex got his first taste of the big time when he was a high school junior. He won a local talent show contest and, well, let’s hear from the youngster himself:

“The first prize was $300 and a two-week trip to New York. I went to New York and stayed at the Theresa Hotel on 125th St. While I was there I appeared on the amateur show at the Apollo and won two weeks in a row. I called up my mother and asked her if I could stay two more weeks. Well, two weeks later I had been a four time winner and Henry Glover, who had been in the audience at the time and who was an A&R man for King Records, offered me a contract. But my mother was all set on me finishing high school, because none of our immediate relatives had ever graduated. Glover said I could go home and come back a year later. That’s just what I did. I went back to Baytown and graduated, and then headed back to New York (in 1955).”

The Hotel Theresa

The Hotel Theresa or the ‘Waldorf’ of Harlem made a name for itself by being one of the few integrated hotels in Manhattan. If you thought Jim Crow ended somewhere around the Mason-Dixon line you would be mistaken.

If you have any doubts about how hip the hotel was, Malcolm X had an office suite there.

Part-time tenants included Count Basie, Jimi Hendrix and Josephine Baker.

Upon Joe Tex’s return to NYC he set about the business of making himself into a superstar. Working days as a gravedigger at a Jewish cemetery kept the lights turned on, and beans and greens on the table while he kickstarted his recording career by setting down tracks for King Records at Beltone Studios on Broadway in Manhattan.

It would be nine years before Joe had that hit he so desperately wanted.

Joe would record for King, Decca, Ace, Anna, Jalynne, and Checker before finally settling in at Buddy Killen’s Dial imprint in 1961.

Killen had made a name for himself as a touring musician for Hank Williams Sr, and after catching Joe Tex in a Nashville nightclub he decided he wanted to be a label boss too.

Rogers, Texas is the hometown of Joe Tex

Over the next three years, Joe would record 10 singles for Killen none of which became a breakout hit. In the Fall of 1964, the two decided to meet at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals so Joe could take a last crack at stardom.

On November 6th, Joe took to the studio with his band of aces for a day-long session. The crew raved up ‘Fresh Out of Tears’ for several hours before tackling “Hold What You’ve Got”

Tex improvised large parts of the cut, and at the end of the session was so dissatisfied that he made Killen promise to never release the song.

Like any record man worth his salt, Killen saw to it that the song came out forthwith as the first Dial record to be distributed by industry monolith Atlantic (Dial 4001)

On Sunday, January 24th 1965, “Hold What You’ve Got”, recorded three months prior, peaked at no. 5 on the Billboard charts and would go on to spend 11 weeks in the Top 100.

Over the next 14 years, Tex would have thirty-five hits on the R&B Singles charts with 11 making the Top 10 and four reaching no. 1: “Hold What You’ve Got” (1964), “I Want To (Do Everything For You)” (1965), “A Sweet Woman Like You” (1966), and “I Gotcha” (1972).

“I Gotcha” was nearly the hit that wasn’t. The song was offered to King Floyd (of sookie! sookie! fame) who turned it down so Tex cut and released it himself.

It would be his final number one hit. In October of that year, Joe Tex proclaimed that he was quitting music for a life to be spent preaching with the Muslim Brotherhood. Joe changed his name to Yusuf Hazziez and good as his word, took to the road to do just that.

After three years of proselytizing, Hazziez once again had a change of heart and reentered the world of secular music with his “Under Your Powerful Love” 45; once again Buddy Killen was at the soundboard; “Sassy Sexy Wiggle” was the b-side.

1977 saw Joe Tex in firm career resurgence with his disco cut “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” The song would go to number 12 on the charts but not without a bit of controversy from the plus-sized community. The larger gals protested the hit but Joe, ever the savvy showman, managed to quell the hubbub by offering $100 prizes to the best of the larger dancing ladies at his concerts. Calling them “Big Fat Woman Bump Contests” Tex claimed “Once we started giving away cash money they started easing off!”

Unfortunately this song would mark the high point of Joe’s career resurgence. He recorded a couple more LPs neither of which were commercially successful and on August 12th, 1982, Joe Tex passed away at the young age of 47 years. He had been found at the bottom of his swimming pool a few days prior, been rescued, and thought to have been in good health but suffered a heart attack and passed.

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About RL Reeves Jr

I'm a writer living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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